Monday, October 02, 2006

Royale with cheese

The West Wing's President Bartlett has a rant about James Bond being a wuss for having his booze shaken not stirred, but I suspect this is in large part to do with him not having seen the recipe for what, for a whole evening, Bond calls a "Vesper":
"'Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?'

'Certainly, monsieur.' The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

'Gosh, that's certainly a drink,' saiod Leiter.

Bond laughed. 'When I'm... er... concentrating,' he explained, 'I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name.'"

Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, p. 51

Casino Royale is going to need quite a lot of work to make even a half decent film (I've never been persuaded that the Bond of the books is better than that chap on screen). For one thing, the main bulk of plot is over less than two-thirds in, and the remainder is Bond recovering in hospital, having nice dinners and lapsing into brutal mysoginy.

In the dour, post-war Europe of 1952, glamour and pizzazz are very hard to come by. But then the Secret Service come up with a crazy idea to ruin one of the Soviet's finest, who is playing Baccarat in a small town in France so as to win back the funds he "borrowed" from his masters and then subsequently lost. If only M can find an agent with some skill - and luck - they could really embarrass the commies.

So, 007 - given a licence to kill because he's killed two people since the end of the war - is sent out to play "nines". He's got an envelope full of money, two colleagues and a bloke from the CIA to assist him. But the baddies have gagdets and a carpet beater, and there's a final sting in the tale...

If you're more familiar with the suave and funny secret agent of the movies, the book-Bond is something of a shock. Many of the traits in this first book do appear in the films - using his own hair and some talcum powder to see if anyone's been in his room (pp. 12-13 and also the film Dr No), or introducing himself as, "Bond - James Bond" (p. 50). The women have silly names and can't help but shag him, and the villains are larger than life.

But Ian Fleming's Bond is a lot more of a bastard than even Connery or Dalton made him, and in the books he hardly ever gets the girl at the end. I was also surprised (though I'd read the book in my early teens) that in Casino Royale it's only the villains who have gadgets - an umbrella that shoots dum-dum bullets and a car that drops a blanket of spikes across the road. In the book such things are underhand cheating.

The Bond of the films is also something of a know-all on every subject except for diamonds. Book Bond has a keen eye for detail and admits his pleasure in food and drink is mostly to do with the loneliness of his job. Bless him. His perspective is coldly analytical, and by far the most effective bits of the book are when we see events and people through his eyes and with the "benefit" of his harsh understanding. When we jump to Vesper or Leiter's point of view, it's all a lot less exciting.

He's a nasty, scarred bloke who tested silencer guns for assassinations (p. 88) and admits the two people he killed to gain his Double-0 were "probably quite decent people" (p. 64). Part of the appeal - if not the charm - is this refusal to spare any punches. That's especially true of the infamous torture sequence, in which Bond spends an hour having his bollocks slapped with a carpet beater and then gets an "M' cut into the flesh of his hand. Unlike the films, this Bond bleeds pretty profusely.

The matter-of-fact prose and attention to detail reminded me in large part of The 39 Steps. Book Bond has more in common with that period piece than he does with today. But the violence is something else, vicious and unrelenting. It's this that marks it out as informed by the atrocities of World War 2.

It is odd to see Bond as a war veteran. He says he bought his Bentley "in 1933" (p. 36), at which point Fleming himself was only 25. If we assume Bond and Fleming are near contemporaries (and Bond can't really be very much younger), then 007 is just about 100 years old.

I think the great excitement about the book, though, is the thrill of such a vicious and experienced hardman getting it all a bit wrong. That's what really differentiates the Bond of the books from his big screen counterpart. He can be old and a dick and a clown and an arsehole, so long as he's never a loser.

1 comment:

Liadnan said...

It is said quite bluntly in one of the early books that Bond served with SOE during the war. Which fits with that dating and makes the idea of him being active any later than 1970, at the absolute outside, ludicrous. Cue the previously touted idea of Bond being a title.

Fleming knew his stuff of course: like Le Carre he had done his time in the intelligence services (an outfit nominally part of naval intelligence I think, eventually merged into MI6) and he almost got done for making the intro to From Russia With Love too accurate -more accurate than anyone outside the USSR should have been.